Exploring New Orleans, from food to music

Ever since I wrote a major paper about Hurricane Katrina in my fourth year of university, I have wanted to go to New Orleans.

Ever since I wrote a major paper about Hurricane Katrina in my fourth year of university, I have wanted to go to New Orleans.

One of my books, written by a reporter for the city’s “Times-Picayune” newspaper, wove together the experiences of several city residents, from a family stranded on their roof in the Lower Ninth Ward, to a hospital nurse, to a police officer, to a photographer. The book was full of detail about New Orleans’ state before the hurricane hit, painting a fascinating picture of life in the city.

This Christmas, I was finally able to visit. The city, and especially the French Quarter, is an intriguing mix of contrasts. Restaurants with pressed linen tablecloths and waiters that call you “ma’am” rub elbows with the excess and neon lights of Bourbon Street. Not far outside the hubbub of the city sit shacks supported by stilts above the swampy ground. In a leafy district close to downtown are grand southern mansions with pillars and wrought-iron balconies.

It is a city that, unquestionably, knows its own identity. It has its own food, music, and dialect. Creole and Cajun dishes, like “po-boy” sandwiches, various seafoods sourced from the Gulf of Mexico, and jambalaya feature on the city’s menus. The smell of the cooking — savoury, well-spiced — wafts from the restaurants and hangs in the air.

Music is everywhere in the French Quarter. As the birthplace of jazz and many famous musicians, talent is never in short supply. The Quarter’s narrow streets are lined with music venues, which fill up every night with an appreciative crowd. The sight of several band members walking with their saxophones, tubas, trombones, and trumpets strapped to them is not uncommon, nor is the sight of a brass band playing in Jackson Square, surrounded by a crowd, some dancing.

New Orleans residents speak with a southern drawl. They say “y’all” and pronounce their city’s name as “Nawlins”, with the latter included in several business names. I like the way they talk. It sounds warm and welcoming, and as sweet as the candies in the city’s many shops.

While in New Orleans, I made it a goal to try every praline in the city. Pralines are a well-known southern candy, similar to fudge but with a more crumbly texture. Dozens of praline stores can be found throughout the city, all claiming to be “world famous” and “New Orleans’ best praline”.

In one store, a non-English speaker asked the shopkeeper what a praline was, pronouncing the second part of the word as “line” instead of “lean”. The shopkeeper pursed her lips.

“Prah-lean,” she corrected. “Pray-lean everywhere else, but prah-lean when you in Nawlins.”

I thought I’d found the best pralines at Aunt Sally’s, a larger store on one of the French Quarter’s main streets. They seemed to have the perfect balance of crumbly texture and vanilla flavour. I bought boxes of them for myself and others.

While wandering down a side street, I came across another praline store. Laura’s Candies was smaller than many others. Its sign said it was “New Orleans’ oldest candy store”. I stepped inside.

Like every other praline store, it smelled strongly of caramel. Boxes of chocolates line its wooden shelves. Six kinds of pralines — rum, coconut, chocolate, maple, plain, and original creole — were prominently displayed at the front. I tried the plain. It was crumblier than Aunt Sally’s. The crumbs melted in my mouth. I’d found the perfect praline.

In 1947, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong performed “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” I might not totally know, but I have an idea.